Biotechnology, Biomedicine, and Bioethics

Many scholars reviewed thus far have positioned their work somehow in relation to the analytical spaces left untouched or underexamined by Foucault’s work on biopolitics and governmentality. Only a few, however, have attempted to spearhead a project of reassessing Foucauldian biopolitics in their entirety for evaluating new and emergent social phenomena in the present. Nikolas Rose and Didier Fassin are two contemporary scholars that have taken up this project with a notable degree of success. Read together, as I attempt to here through Rose’s 2007 book called “The Politics of Life Itself” and Fassin’s 2010 piece “Coming Back to Life”, the pairing of the frameworks they each advance provides what I found to be one of the most satisfying theoretical developments towards the larger aforementioned project.

     Rose, in “The Politics of Life Itself”, argues that the novelty, sensed by many, of the present vital order of knowledge/power/subjectivity, stems from the biopolitical folding of bios back into zoe (p.83). This is a process, he suggests, which has allowed ontological mutations in human understanding of ourselves and in ideas about our possible future selves. It constitutes life as the central stake of politics today, resulting in what he perceives may produce new forms of life, determined by our changing conceptions about who we are, who we wish to be, and who we might conceivably become. Rose argues that these new forms of life and subjectification are emergent “at the multiple intersections between the imperatives of the market and the drive for shareholder value, the new imaginations of the body and its processes that have been brought into existence, the drive of biomedical researchers for papers, prizes, and intellectual property, and the hopes of national governments for new economic opportunities” (p.105). Also underpinning all of this has been the increasing molecularization of ‘the clinical gaze’ and the style of thought which produces biomedical knowledge, and biopolitical knowledge about life itself.

     Rose constructs his overall project by positioning himself apart from others critically analyzing the fields of biomedicine and biotechnology from an ethically-committed standpoint. He instead sees the biopolitical future of molecularized life as both hopeful and tenuous, open to more than one different possible trajectory. He says, “my aim is not so much to call for a new philosophy of life, but to rather explore the philosophy of life that is embodied in the ways of thinking and acting espoused by the participants in this politics of life itself” (p.49). In so doing, it is necessary to point out, Rose’s analyses deal much more directly with privileged lives in the developed world than with contemporary global subjectivities in all. He is aware of this emphasis in his work, and it leads him to consider emergent forms of life under biopolitics today predominantly in relation to the discovery of DNA and the development of advanced biomedical and neuroscientific technologies that have reshaped the way many individuals conceive themselves as embodied subjects. He is mildly critiqued for this emphasis by Fassin, who acknowledges the importance of this work but does not see it as complete insofar as reconceptualizing biopolitics for the emergent present requires.

     I am fully in agreement with Fassin on this point. The complexity of Rose’s reassessment of life under contemporary biopolitics, developed through the various related fields of biomedicine, is incredibly productive even beyond the nuanced and in-depth look he gives into these fields. By studying the work of biomedical and biotechnological knowledge on the biologized political lives of subject bodies in relation to the shaping of new ideas about the self and the future, Rose sets up an excellent example of how knowledge/power/subjectivity still remains a very useful analytic for identifying emergent forms of social life today- even those which had yet to appear during Foucault’s lifetime. Yet, as Fassin points out, inequality through governmentality, as an integral component in today’s biopolitical equations remains neglected, just as Foucault, and just about everyone since him, neglected it.

     Fassin’s project in his 2010 piece, “Coming Back to Life”, argues that, while Rose does take us closer to properly re-orienting Foucault’s work towards the emergent present, what is ultimately missing from the whole equation is an integration of governmentality. Such an integration into the conversation about biopower today, he says, would introduce two new and critically re-formative questions that would move us closer to discussing ‘meanings’ and ‘lived experiences’ as a part of biopolitics. These are, “What is being done to living beings through different forms of government?” and “What sort of life is implicitly taken for granted in this process?”.

     Fassin’s efforts in this piece are genealogical in that they productively re-trace the conceptual development of biopolitics to identify the gaps and wrong turns that have led to its difficult re-conceptualization for understanding emergent phenomena in the present. It is therefore a very useful accompaniment to Rose’s work, which develops through various related cases an in-depth analysis of biopower by advancing his own complexly-nuanced framework of knowledge/power/subjectivity. It would be interesting, and potentially telling, to see how one might merge the two by developing an in-depth case analysis that is not strictly concerned with either biology or medicine, and through an inclusion of governmentality, bioinequalities and biolegitimacy as central terms of the discussion as suggested by Fassin.

     Potentially, I could see my research on ideologically post-racial STEM education outreach efforts and STEM citizen-subject formation in the U.S. as an emergent context that might facilitate the bridging of these two scholars’ innovations in biopolitics. Specifically, that is if this research could establish a relationship between post-racial ideology’s first appearances and the ‘reinvention of race’ through discoveries of DNA by biomedical technological advances; and if the philanthropically-framed recruitment of racial and gender minorities into fields of STEM knowledge production, which significantly include the fields of biomedicine and biotechnology, could be framed in the terms of governmentality, biolegitimacy, and bioinequalities. I believe the potential to draw these particular connections would be both possible and productive, as the neoliberal recruitment of minorities into fields of STEM knowledge production seems, to me, to offer a rich context for exploring the types of projects called for by both Fassin and Rose.



Rose, Nikolas
2007     The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Fassin, Didier
2010     “Coming Back to Life: An Anthropological Reassessment of Biopolitics and Governmentality.” In Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges, Eds. U. Brockling, S. Krasmann, and T. Lemke. New York: Routledge.

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